An innovation partnership: ESA Earth Observation and Airbus

An image to demonstrate the European Space Agency's Earth Observation

Josef Aschbacher, Director of Earth Observation Programmes (EOP) and head of ESA’s centre for Earth Observation (ESRIN), spoke to SciTech Europa about their agreement with Airbus, satellite launches, and ‘fake science’.

At the 11th European Space Policy event in Brussels in February, SciTech Europa  witnessed the signing of an agreement between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus, an international pioneer in the aerospace industry. Following the signing, SciTech Europa Quarterly met with Josef Aschbacher, Director of Earth Observation Programmes (EOP) and head of ESA’s centre for Earth Observation (ESRIN), who had added his signature to the agreement, who explained that it was an offer he was in fact extending to all commercial companies in Europe. “This,” he said, “is to host people from the industry in our Phi lab for a certain period of time. Phi Lab is an ESA innovation centre and is where we really want to push disruptive innovation to the edge and test new things that are not classically done in Earth observation.”

The Airbus agreement confirmed that the industry partner would send a number of their staff to work in the Phi Lab on a specific project that has been jointly defined by the two parties, for the duration of a year, after which they will return to Airbus.

Aschbacher said: “This is essentially an exchange of experts and scientists for a limited period of time. Once this is completed, the Airbus members will go on to eventually commercialise the work coming out of the project, which is exactly what we want them to do; we want to help the space industry at large to come up with new ideas.”

Phi Week

This is something that ESA is already achieving. For example, in 2018 the space agency organised a ‘phi week’ which involved around a thousand people attending the Phi Lab for a week at ESA ESRIN, Frascati, to talk about artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technology, blockchain, and small satellite constellations, amongst other things.

Aschbacher explained: “AI was one of the main topics at this event, and during Phi Week I announced during that we wanted to start an experiment which would see the launch of two small satellites that would include a chip containing an AI processor. This is something that has never been done before.

“The chip is something that is actually commercially available, meaning that we had to space-test it ourselves by exposing it to radiation, which we did at CERN. We found that it survived quite well, and so we have now placed this AI chip onboard a small satellite, and we will fly it and then, of course, test the chip in space. The launch is planned for mid-2019.”

Aschbacher also highlighted that this is a low cost, low investment experiment which, if successful, provides the potential for a larger satellite as this technology could then be placed onboard the more classical satellites and so be responsible for the on-board processing, detecting etc. “This is, of course, the long-term dream, but we are starting it now and we are testing it quickly. The ESA Phi Lab is organising these disruptive ideas and innovations,” Aschbacher added.

Space for society

Widening the scope of the discussion, Aschbacher went on to discuss how space is involved in addressing challenges such as climate change. He told SE that a recent independent survey of 5,000 European citizens to gauge their thoughts on what the priority investments areas in space should be, revealed that information on climate change and a better understanding of our planet were the top priority answers. “Therefore,” he said, “it is the number one concern of normal citizens to better understand our planet and, in particular, how climate change develops and what the impact is. This, for me, is a must, and something that requires our investment and attention.

“Last year, there was a global increase of 0.4°C on the average temperature which leads, for example, to the melting of the ice caps and different weather patterns, amongst other things, and space is a very good way of measuring these global changes to our planet.

The International Charter: Space and Major Disasters

The International Charter: Space and Major Disasters is a worldwide collaboration between 17 space agencies, through which satellite data are made available for the benefit of disaster management.

Discussing this, Aschbacher explained that any civil protection agency can trigger the charter at any time, thereby resulting in all the satellites belonging to the participants being used to look at the disaster spot and to provide satellite images for free.
“On average, the charter sees around 44 activations each year,” he told SEQ. “Typically, these disasters are hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and so on. Every time we see the newspaper talking about a big disaster, you can be almost sure that the charter has
been activated.”

Societal needs

“In addition to this,” Aschbacher continued, “we want to demonstrate how space and science can be used for the needs of the people. We therefore have a programme where we translate this technical satellite data into information that is relevant to citizens and which is really truly picked up by them. ESA is interested in developing new methods and technologies, and once there is commercial interest, we want to be able to support industry so that they can take that technology up and carry it forward so that it penetrates into the life of citizens and their daily lives.”

Copernicus and DIAS – Data and Information Access Services

Turning his attention to ‘Copernicus’, Aschbacher explained that as an Earth Observation platform, this looks at the Earth and its environment for the ultimate benefit of all European citizens, whilst producing vast amounts of global data.

When asked about the challenges posed by such vast amounts of data, he told SEQ: “today, we are producing the largest volume of Earth observation data in the world. Every day, some 150 terabytes are delivered from our central server to end-users world-wide. The amount of data we are handling is huge, and it keeps increasing, and this is now putting a strain on the infrastructure, including our data processing, storage and delivery facilities. As a result of this, we are now moving towards a cloud-based type of processing, in addition to delivering data from our central data hub.”

This move towards cloud-based processing involves the Copernicus data being “provided to the European Commission’s ‘DIAS’ service, which is a cloud-based sharing facility ran by commercial companies. Aschbacher said: “This is a trend which we are seeing now and, of course, given the massive volume of data we have. It is also becoming important to have automated mechanisms in place, and this is where artificial intelligence plays a role in making it possible to select certain data sets and, once you have identified certain features, you obtain a signal and you can then look into it and see what it really means. There is a combination of big data, cloud-based processing, and AI, all of which have to work together very closely.”

‘Fake science’

When asked about the speed at which policy makers take on-board scientific evidence in their decision making, Aschbacher revealed this to be one of his bugbears. He told SciTech Europa Quarterly: “This is one thing that really frustrates me. We are providing evidence from science, and yet, in some instances, people will argue that it is fake and cannot and should not be believed. For me, it is incredible that someone can be presented with reality, with facts, but chooses to ignore it and refuses to accept it.”

“What we can do,” he went on, “is showcase the findings of science, explain it and make it public, and then hope that the public puts enough pressure on politicians so that they take note of it and are no longer able to ignore it.

“This is something that we have to work on, and there are things that have to be improved from our side as well so that we better convey our messages. Indeed, this can sometimes be challenging because what we want to convey can be very technical, and yet we have to get this message through to both politicians and the general public. As such, I believe that an added emphasis should be placed on the way we speak to people.”

Josef Aschbacher
Earth Observation
Programmes (EOP)
Centre for Earth
Observation (ESRIN)
European Space Agency (ESA)
Tweet @esa

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